Every town I visited in the Czech Republic had impressive architecture. But Ostrava, the scene for this year’s TBEX (Travel Bloggers’ Exchange) conference, was the most intriguing. It might be a bustling industrial town, but it still had the historic heart, complete with central square, that I had come to expect in a Czech city. Then there was the very different architecture of Poruba, a Soviet planned community. But most spectacular of all was the strange post-industrial landscape of Dolní Vitkovice.
The Old Town of Ostrava
Although you can see fragments of some older structures, and of the old city walls, Ostrava is a more modern city than others I visited in the Czech Republic. The old town, based around Masaryk Square, has several grand buildings, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. Look out for the gleaming Cathedral of the Divine Saviour, built in 1889, and for the street art and sculptures dotted around the old town.
One thing that surprised me was what at first I assumed was Soviet architecture: functionalist buildings decorated with images of workers. I found out later that this was actually early 20th century Czech design, and that this particular style pre-dated the Soviets.
Poruba: The “New Ostrava”
As industry flourished in Ostrava, workers arrived in the city and needed somewhere to live. New suburbs and estates were created, but by the 1950s there was an ambitious new plan: to relocate the city itself to a new site at Poruba. This was partly for the benefit of the residents, as the air was much cleaner in Poruba. However, the planners also wanted a way to access the rich seam of coal that lay beneath the city centre.
In the event the project ran out of money, and the mass relocation never happened. However a large part of the town was completed, and today Poruba is a popular suburb with 100,000 residents. People are attracted by the parkland, the community facilities, and the quality of the housing.
Poruba was built in the “Socialist realism” style. Many of the houses and apartments have columns, sculptures and other decorative features, and there are grand arches and civic buildings. I’ve always tended to think of Soviet architecture as featureless, but as I walked around I thought that the houses in Poruba were much nicer than equivalent British buildings from the 1950s!
The Industrial Landscape of Dolní Vítkovice
My first sight of Dolní Vítkovice was from the bus. I’d never seen anything like it: a vast startling landscape of rusting iron and steel, the abandoned buildings of an old ironworks and coal mine. At first sight it is like a dystopian sci-fi film set, an eerie silence penetrating the faint whiff of sulphur, and no sign of life apart from the weeds pushing their way through the cracks in the concrete.
But look closer and you will see the transformation that is taking place. Buildings are gradually being repurposed for commercial and leisure use. The TBEX conference was in the Gong, a former gas cylinder which now houses meeting rooms, a conference hall and and art gallery. The inside of the building is a work of art in itself, with remnants of the industrial building among the ultra-modern fittings and décor.
Exploring Dolní Vítkovice
Equally astounding is the Bolt Tower, a tall structure built on top of an old blast furnace. You can take the lift to the top for the café and the views over the entire site, with the Beskydy Mountains beyond. There is even an outside walkway that snakes its way to the very top (although I don’t recommend this if you suffer from vertigo!).
Then there is the Science and Technology Centre, and Hlubina, a multi-arts building. Dolní Vítkovice seems to be a leisure facility for the locals: I watched an outdoor cross-fit session, and families queuing up for guided tours of the site. And “Colours of Ostrava”, a massive music festival, takes place here each year.
It is all part of Ostrava’s architectural journey, from pre-industrialisation to the 21st century and beyond.
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